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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: crisis

Nairobi Hackers Descend Upon the iHub

I’m sitting at the iHub this morning, after just having given my welcome to the 40+ Nairobian hackers who have descended upon the place. They’re here to take part in the global Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) hackathon to develop tech solutions to pressing needs in crisis and disaster response.

It should come as no surprise that Nairobi’s technorati are well-versed in mobile solutions, that’s quickly becoming a competitive advantage in this city. So far we have groups coming up with solutions for amputee registration via SMS and USSD, An SMS solution to create distress texts, improvements to people finder apps and tracking of mobile payments.

Keep up to speed

This event goes through Sunday afternoon, it’s a full 36 hour hackathon. Watch as the devs in Kenya work with their counterparts in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, the US and UK. Keep an eye out on the above resources to see what comes out of Africa!

RHoK Nairobi, Kenya

Working on Ushahidi’s Haiti Response

Last Wednesday started out pretty normal for me. Then it stopped. The US-based members of the Ushahidi team informed me of the earthquake in Haiti, and then the madness began… 6 days later, what’s happened?

Ushahidi is heavily involved in mapping and integrating crowdsourced information from Haiti into an aggregated map that is being used by both people on the ground who need help and those who can provide relief. Teams of volunteers in Kenya, Uganda and the US have been working to solidify the platform and make this effort work. Keep up-to-date in our Situation Room and our blog.

Though it’s not a completely accurate description of what we’re doing, it’s close: We’re running what’s basically the 911 system for Haiti through a local shortcode on the Digicel network 4636. More on the 4636 number and campaign.

How you can help

Pass this message on, try to get it to people, media and organizations IN Haiti:

“In Haiti? Text 4636 (International:447624802524) on Digicel with your location and need. Report emergencies and missing persons.”

Help with open mapping of Haiti campaign through OpenStreetMap, CrisisMapping Network and CrisisCommons via the “Drawing Together” campaign.

Other links you should know about

Missing persons index
In-Haiti relief organization registry
Twitter Tracker/Filter
Crowdsourced facial recognition
OpenStreetMap Haiti
Crisis Commons Haiti
ICT4Peace – useful links wiki

It turns out this little experiment that started two years ago to crowdsource information from the public in Kenya during the post-election violence might have a future after all… 🙂

Thanks for your support, and for your help.

Quick Hits around African Tech

Understanding what drives Mpesa agents
Growing the agent network is one of the most challenging parts of a mobile payment system.

“The number one cost for most agents was liquidity management – moving cash. Agents report a host of expenses, including bank charges, transport costs, and fees to aggregators who advance commissions and provide easy float/cash swaps for agents. On average, liquidity management consumed 30% of total expenses.”

Asynchronous Info, Disjointed Data and Crisis Reporting
Jon Gosier talks about Uganda’s riots and what he’s learned in the process.

Africa’s diaspora and the cloud
Teddy Ruge writes a great essay on the web and Africa’s diaspora.

“There’s a cloud gathering over Africa; a storm of connected thoughts and ideas that are pushing African countries violently forward. The Diaspora is using emerging web technologies in increasing numbers, frequency, and variety to stay connect with Africa, simultaneously charting a new digital course for it’s economic independence on the world stage.”

New Africa broadband ‘ready’
The BBC Digital Planet team is in Kenya and doing a knock-up job of interviewing people about what’s going on around the tech space there.

Emmanuel Kala in Nairobi
(Note: all the people in the BBC “in pictures” for this day are part of the Ushahidi extended dev team in Kenya)

Mobiles offer lifelines in Africa
Ken Banks writes about mobile phone growth and development in Africa, stating “Africans are not the passive recipients of technology many people seem to think they are.”

Ushahidi in the Congo (DRC)

When we pushed the first version of Ushahidi live in Kenya, I was trying to juggle that as I spoke at a conference in New York. Today, we’re deploying the new Ushahidi Engine (v0.1) into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and I’m in Rhode Island speaking at another conference. I’m starting to see a pattern emerge…

Reporting Incidents from the Congo

The DRC deployment can be found at http://DRC.ushahidi.com, and the mobile number to send SMS reports to is +243992592111.

Ushahidi Deployed to the Congo (DRC)

Note: This is the alpha software for Ushahidi. If you find any problems, please submit them to bugs.ushahidi.com.

How you can help

Get the word out. Let people know the mobile number (+243992592111) and website (drc.ushahidi.com). Help get word to the Congolese on the ground in the DRC of this tool, that’s who needs to know about it.

Things are serious in the Congo… They are bad, very bad. As Sean Jacobs states:

“Since August this year at least 250,000 people have been left homeless in Eastern Congo in the latest outbreak of a civil war described here as between government troups and a rebel group claiming to protect ethnic Tutsis. At least 2 million people are refugees from that war which dates back to 1996.”

It’s a difficult situation, with a swirling mixture of militia and armed forces, compounded by particularly brutal and confusing activities. External military forces, years of displacement and a misinformation mar the landscape.

A new Ushahidi, a new test

To be quite honest, we’re a little nervous, just as we were the first time. The new engine still has a few bugs, and there are some process flow issues that we’re still trying to get figured out. This time we’re backed up by a group of competent developers who are working to get things straightened out. Want to help us make it better? It’s an open community, and we’re looking for your input.

We are VERY interested in hearing from you on how we can make the system better. If you have ideas, thoughts, comments – tell us. Leave them in the comments here, on the Ushahidi blog, or on the Ushahidi contact form.

This is a test of the system, albeit a very difficult one, but it will affect the way the software is changed, modified and upgraded in the next version. What we get right here, we can make work for you in your area when you need it.

How SMS messages route through Ushahidi

This simplified graphic was created to show how SMS messaging moves through the Ushahidi system – it’s a 2-way communication cycle.



SMS Reporting Through Ushahidi, originally uploaded by whiteafrican.
  1. An SMS gets sent to a local number
  2. It passes through FrontlineSMS
  3. This syncs with Ushahidi
  4. The message shows up on Ushahidi
  5. Admins can decide to send a message back to the original sender

We use FrontlineSMS so that we can provide local numbers in areas where the larger SMS gateways don’t operate. For instance, if you were to try to run this in Zambia, you’d probably get a UK phone number if you went through Clickatell. However, we do use Clickatell for the messages that we route back to the original sender due to cost savings. They also have a very nice, easy to use API.

Mobile Phones in Crisis & Disaster Situations

This morning I had the honor of putting on a workshop at MobileActive ’08 with Robert Kirkpatrick, of InSTEDD, and Christopher Fabian, of UNICEF. Both of them are doing some amazing work in the field of disaster and crisis response, using all different types of technology, but specifically what people carry in their pockets all over the world: the mobile phone.

InSTEDD, UNICEF and Ushahidi at MobileActive '08

InSTEDD has a number of ongoing projects, generally thinking about ways to use technology to help organizations collaborate better in some of the harshest disaster environments in the world. You’ll find their tech guys everywhere, from Cambodia to hurricane Ike. Their Mesh4x and SMS GeoChat technology is incredibly important, and I foresee it being used in many applications in the future.

the UNICEF BeeUNICEF has two interesting skunkworks-like projects (among many more) that they talked about today. The Bee, which allows communication, connectivity and data access in field conditions where such technologies are often difficult or impossible to use (video of the old version of the Bee). Christopher also talked about RapidSMS, an SMS and voice data gathering tool that is currently being used in Northern Uganda.

Takeaways: Free, Open Source, Customizable

It was interesting to hear each of us talk about our projects and how we each have an immense amount of respect for what each of the other groups is doing. Ushahidi’s focus is on gathering distributed data from civilians for visualization, InSTEDD is focused on collaboration, and UNICEF is trying to figure out how that works within groups and communities.

One consistent message is this: every crisis situation differs, so we need to build tools that are open and free for anyone to access. It’s a little like all of us creating different Lego pieces that go into the Lego box for everyone else to use.

Ushahidi needs to figure out how to incorporate both RapidSMS and SMS GeoChat. UNICEF’s Bee needs to get Mesh4x embedded in their device – which has both open source hardware and software. There are other tools, like Sahana, that we need to learn how to incorporate into our systems as well – or at the least make possible to interface between when people need that specific mix of tools in their particular situation.

Lastly, but probably most importantly, we all see that developing within the context of the areas of the world where these disaster or crisis situations are happening is vital. UNICEF has developers in a couple different African countries. InSTEDD’s devs are training local devs in all of the countries that they go to. Ushahidi has 85% of our dev team in Africa. It’s a trend, and a good one – making sure that the people build the tools using the devices and limitations in which they will be used.

Look for big things stemming from this meet up soon.

Thoughts from Day 2 at the Global Philanthropy Forum

The only other event that I’ve attended that brings as many high profile and high net worth individuals together besides the GPF is TED. What’s wonderful about both events is how open everyone you meet is to discussing new ideas, no matter if they’re (literally) a rockstar or not.

Unfortunately for me, I woke up to only about 20% voice usability. I could barely talk. After drinking gallons of hot water, with lemon and honey, I was able to croak well enough for my panel session on early warning systems.

Sitting on the panel listening to my fellow panelists was actually one of the best parts. Jan Chipchase of Nokia, who writes the wonderful Future Perfect blog, had some incredibly good thoughts on mobile phones and their real-world usage. In honor of how he takes photos of random things he sees around the world, I’ve added the image below of his Moleskin notebook.

Jan Chipchase Moleskin Notebook

One of the great examples he brought up was the how people were being incentivized to take their medications in some developing nations. They were given a piece of paper that when urinated on would show a specific code that needed to be SMS’d in to the health clinic. If it was right, that person would receive top-up minutes for their phone. Just brilliant.

The other panelist was Mark Smolinski, Director of the Predict and Prevent Initiative at Google.org. Again, another class-act with more experience covering health-related crisis in his pinky finger than I have in my whole body. He covered some thoughts on getting “two steps to the left“, thoughts on how hyper-early warning in epidemics can drastically reduce the impact of a pandemic. Fascinating and an infinitely difficult task to perform.


The Elders

After the panel I was approached to take part in some digital strategy discussions with The Elders – a group of “retired” politicians and high-profile individuals who work to ease human suffering. A prime example of this was when Elders Kofi Annan and Graça Machel went to Kenya for 5 weeks to help resolve the post-election dispute. Needless to say, it was somewhat surreal sitting next to Peter Gabriel while talking with people like Mary Robinson.

Before the night was over, we were treated to a talk about doing something around the HIV/AIDS “genocide” in Africa, and a few songs by Annie Lennox. Her new campaign on AIDS in Africa is called Sing.

We ended the night with a stage discussion with Richard Branson, where he talked about being one of the founders of The Elders and how he uses his business success for global good. He made some polarizing statements about Mbeki and Zuma in South Africa, followed by some thoughts on letting Mugabe walk away in Zimbabwe. In the question and answer session he was called to task by some of the audience.

What I wanted to ask him, but didn’t have the voice for, was his thoughts what he likes to call crisis “war rooms”. He has big ideas on these for both epidemic crisis in Africa and the climate crisis globally. What I wanted to know was why he doesn’t throw a third one in to his collection – a crisis “war room” for human rights and mass atrocities so we’re more prepared for events like Kenya and Zimbabwe.

I’m praying that I get my voice back by tomorrow.

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